In tough economic times, public funds should be spent where it will make the most difference in the short and long-term. Reducing the school dropout rate would help to maximise the value of young people in building the prospects of our nation, writes Merle Mansfield

One of the key challenges of building a successful advocacy campaign to reduce the rate of school dropouts is that the problem is so pervasive in South Africa that it seems normal in many communities.

You don’t have to search far to find someone who has dropped out of school.

In Grassy Park, for example, our outreach team spoke to Brandon* – a Grade 10 learner who lives in a two-bedroom house with three of his cousins, all of whom dropped out of school.

“The reason I choose to stay in school is because I know what the alternative is. I see my cousins’ lives and I don’t want that for myself,” Brandon told us.

Brandon’s cousins are part of the more than 40% of young people between the ages of 15 and 34 who are not in any form of employment, education or training (NEET), according to Statistics South Africa’s latest Quarterly Labour Survey.

Even though a matric certificate is not a silver bullet for our youth employment crisis, it still opens up doors for educational and employment opportunities, which is why reducing dropout is critical to tackling joblessness.

This logic is precisely why we’re calling on government to lay out targeted policies and allocate sufficient funding to initiatives aimed at reducing the dropout rate.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address made no mention of such a strategy, however, despite the Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, expressing concern in January about the “disturbing” number of learners who drop out of school or have to repeat a grade.

Basic education usually gets the lion’s share of the Budget, rising from R262.5bn in 2019/2020 to R293.2bn in 2022/2023, but this does not mean that spending on education is keeping pace with inflation.

Research has shown that real per-pupil spending has declined by 8% since 2010 when one considers that classroom sizes are getting larger and teachers’ salaries are factored into the equation.

New austerity measures will also delay plans to expand feeding programmes to quintile 4 and 5 schools, although children in quintile 1-3 schools (in the poorest areas) are not expected to be affected. Now more than ever, we need to use public money wisely.

It does not make sense to invest in a child for ten or more years, only to have them drop out with two years to go to complete school.

Research shows that dropout is a culmination of factors that build up over time, causing a learner to disengage until they give up completely, making it a process that is both impacted by events that happen in a learner’s life and structural problems within the education system.

There are nearly 40 different risk indicators that affect a learner’s decision to drop out, ranging from contextual factors (at home or in their communities) to school-level factors such as falling behind academically, bullying or a lack of psycho-social support.

In South Africa, dropout peaks between Grades 10 and 12, which is why interventions must start early.

It’s important for children to have access to a psychologist, counsellor or mentor to help them deal with emotional barriers that may interfere with their academic success.

Unfortunately, the reality is that a district school psychologist (based at the district office) has to serve as many as 30 schools.

The introduction of well-trained and well-managed Learner Support Agents (LSAs) in some schools in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal – essentially matric graduates providing a range of support and peer mentoring services — is a way to alleviate pressure on trained professionals in short supply.

At-risk learners who are struggling academically usually end up repeating a grade, which costs the country around R20 billion annually.

Unless the learner gets the academic and emotional support needed to progress to the next level, grade repetition may not be effective.

School-based and district-based support teams – responsible for providing psycho-social services – should be properly funded because they play an integral role in keeping learners on track to completing Grade 12.

The government also plans to introduce coding and robotics in Grades R to 3 in at least 200 schools, with a plan to implement it fully by 2022.

It’s difficult to predict what effect this will have, especially when we know learners are struggling with basic literacy and numeracy. According to PIRLS 2016, 78% of learners are unable to read with understanding in any language in Grade 4, which is why we expected Ramaphosa’s government to prioritise getting the basics right first.

In addition to not being able to read for comprehension, black and coloured children in low resource schools don’t have minimum skills for their grade in maths either.

Eighty percent of Grade 8 and 9 learners in private schools score above the minimum level of ability for maths compared to 20% of learners in no-fee schools – where the risk of disengagement is highest.

Higher rates of dropout among poor black and coloured children can be traced back to how the education system, our towns and cities were planned and structured during apartheid.

Although there have been efforts to bridge the inequality gap – specifically through the Basic Education Department’s norms and standards policy launched six years ago – progress has been too slow.

A 2019 report by the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) revealed that plain pit latrines were still the only form of toilets at 3?710 schools, while 169 schools were entirely without electricity.

School dropout is a complex problem requiring a multi-layered approach that begins with factoring the issue into policy and planning frameworks.

From the onset, we need adequate funding and manpower to ensure school-based and district-based support teams are functioning optimally, school environments are conducive to teaching and learning, and learners have strong foundational education.

If we focus our collective effort on catching learners before they drop out of school, we may be able to, as the President says: “Make this country work for young people, so that they can work for our country.”

By getting the basics right, we may be able to shatter perceptions that dropping out is normal.

*Brandon’s name has been changed.

– Merle Mansfield is programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign

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